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What the Sears? A retailer’s decades of brand evolution

A Sears remake modelled after the affordable fashion lines of Joe Fresh and Uniqlo.

Sears

For years, Sears Canada Inc. has been focused on its brand's evolution.

A full decade ago, when announcing work with a new agency, Sears acknowledged that the retailer needed to "become relevant with Canadian consumers" and that it required a "renewed brand vision."

Canadian retail was becoming polarized as shoppers moved toward both discount and higher-end stores. Sears was stuck in the middle.

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"If you look at every category – automobiles, beverage – the middle market is disappearing. The growth is at the price value end of the spectrum, or affordable luxury. They firmly tried to stay in the middle," said Joe Jackman, founder of Toronto-based retail consultancy Jackman Reinvents. "Price-focused shopping was on the rise, and I never would have advised them to play a price game, but [as a retailer] you have to demonstrate why your visit is going to be worth a bit more."

Mr. Jackman points to competitor Hudson's Bay, which struggled for years, and managed to revitalize its brand.

Video: Sears Canada: The retailer's rise and decline (The Canadian Press)

"They took the path of, 'Let's have products that others don't. Let's differentiate our offering.' They said 'We're going to be affordable luxury,' essentially." Had Sears differentiated what its brand stood for, it could have done better, he said.

Because Sears did not, a newer generation of customers never came.

In 2015, new president Carrie Kirkman acknowledged that Sears needed to court more women between the age of 35 and 50.

"To win with a new segment that they've kind of ignored for years, is a tough branding challenge," said Jennifer Marley, a partner at Toronto-based consultancy Sklar Wilton and Associates. "It might be a little too late to reinvent with that group."

Recently, Sears launched more "fast fashion" apparel, but it faces an already well-established competitive set that includes Joe Fresh, H&M, Forever 21, Zara and more, including new competitors such as Uniqlo. It opened a pop-up shop in downtown Toronto using the slogan "#weveCHANGED" to convince younger customers to give the brand a second look.

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The dire headlines haven't helped.

"News about store closings, layoffs, it tarnishes a brand," Ms. Marley said. "It sends a signal to this younger group that it is not of today. When they've got so many other options, it's a tough, tough challenge."

Some key points in Sears Canada's marketing history:

  • 1973: Simpsons-Sears Ltd. drops half its name to clear up confusion with Simpsons stores. (Sears launched in Canada in 1953 as a joint venture between American company Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Canada’s Robert Simpson Co.)
     
  • 1984: The company formally changes its name to Sears Canada Inc., and introduces the logo in blue lettering with white stripes in the middle of the letters. Sears also follows its U.S. counterpart in beginning to introduce “the store of the future” with bold graphic displays, easier-to-find merchandise grouped by category, and a more inviting atmosphere.
     
  • 1986: Sears launches its loyalty program, Sears Catalogue Club, later rebranded as Sears Club.
     
  • 1996: It adds a small maple leaf to its logo to set it apart from the American Sears chain. This follows mounting pressure from falling financial performance, and job cuts that wipe out almost 30 per cent of its work force.
     
  • 1998: Sears launches a small e-commerce site.
     
  • 1999: Sears buys Eaton’s for $80-million.
     
  • 2000: Sears redesigns its stores and attempts to appeal to younger shoppers. The seven remaining Eaton’s stores are rebranded with a lower-case e and no apostrophe, in a bid to make the chain more upscale with spas and higher-end products. A year and a half later, Sears abandons the project and the Eaton’s brand is phased out entirely, with some locations converted back to Sears stores.
     
  • October, 2007: Sears tries again to refresh its brand. Announcing its appointment of a new ad agency – TBWA – the company says in a release that it needs to “become relevant with Canadian consumers” and that the relationship marks its goal to develop a “renewed brand vision” for the retailer. Through 2007 and 2008 it will announce numerous price drops on products in its stores, in an attempt to respond to economic woes and a drop in consumer confidence.
     
  • March, 2011: Can Sears be synonymous with high fashion? Announcing a “new phase in its fashion direction,” Sears appoints Jay Manuel of America’s Next Top Model fame as a creative director for the stores’ new private label collection, Attitude Jay Manuel.
     
  • 2012: “It’s a brand re-architecture discussion,” Chris Brockbank, senior vice-president marketing at Sears Canada, says to Marketing magazine about its selection of a new ad agency, the Unitas Reputation Agency. The retailer introduces a new store concept, with wider aisles and changes in merchandise, at four Ontario locations. It introduces the “Look Report,” a large-format flyer. Sears launches a new slogan, “Make Every Day a Great Day.”
     
  • 2014: The retailer tries to get into the growing market for athletic apparel with the launch of private label brand PURE NRG Athletics. It also introduces the largest home decor collection in years with 400 products under the new Style at Home brand in partnership with the magazine of the same name. Comedian Mike Myers stars in an online video with his brother, a veteran employee, to poke fun at Sears’ troubles. “We’re not going anywhere. You of all people should know not to believe everything you read in the papers,” his brother tells him. Myers sings “Come see the softer side of Sears,” only to be told they don’t use that jingle any more.
     
  • 2015: New president Carrie Kirkman says the stores need to court more women in the 35- to 50-year-old demographic, while keeping its best customers – women older than 50 – happy. It plans to focus more on apparel and home decor, and less on appliances. The company announces a partnership with designer Debbie Travis on a home decor collection.
     
  • 2016: Sears ditches its old blue-and-white logo, now spelling out “Sears” in black capital letters with a red maple leaf on the end. The logo is meant to work in online formats as well as stores, as the retailer attempts to improve its e-commerce experience for shoppers. It redesigns its catalogue to print on higher-quality paper and to encourage visits to Sears.ca, offering 10 per cent off online purchases. And it launches new stores the company calls “Sears 2.0” with a cleaner look. It also introduces a new slogan – “WTS?” or “What the Sears” – to encourage shoppers to explore the revamped stores.
     
  • 2017: A pop-up shop in downtown Toronto uses the slogan #weveCHANGED [sic] to show off its products – including a fast-fashion line – to younger consumers.
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About the Author
Media and Marketing Reporter

Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More

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